When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.
I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.
The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.
The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.
I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.
A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.
Nate’s Grade: C-
In the mid 1980s, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were responsible for billions of dollars worth of narcotics filtering into the United States. It’s the kind of work that can fill up Robert Mazur’s (Bryan Cranston) career. He works as a Florida Customs agent but his specialty is going undercover for his assignments. He’s called out of retirement with the promise of striking high in the ranks of Escobar’s ring of lieutenants. Mazur’s partner, Emir (John Leguizamo), uses an unreliable informant to start the new identity, and so Mazur poses as a money laundering expert who offers his sundry services to the Colombian cartel. After blurting out that he has a fiancé in lieu of accepting a prostitute’s services as a very 80s way of saying “thank you,” the agency must now provide him with a fake wife, played by rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). The two have to rely upon one another in a world of criminals and murderers who would have no gutting them.
My main feeling once The Infiltrator had come to its natural conclusion was that everything about this movie should have been better. It’s a terrific premise as we follow the undercover travails of a man trying to stay one step ahead and keep his dual lives separated, invariably having them bleed into one another especially as danger escalates and his cover may be blown. Then you add an untrained partner and the conflict magnifies from there. Then you have Mazur work his way up the food chain to the major lieutenants of Pablo Escobar. This movie should be exploding with dramatic irony, weighty decisions, and magnificent suspense, but it’s really not. So why not?
One reason is that the movie whiffs with its modest ambitions, namely in its shallow character study of Mazur and the lingering effects of pretending to be a very bad man. Going undercover has to be one of the most stressful jobs in law enforcement, and living two different lives has to have a noticeable psychological impact, eating away at our protagonist and affecting his relationships and sense of self. That doesn’t happen with The Infiltrator as the few glimpses we get of Mazur’s home life are mostly harmless check-ins. A red light is installed in his home to mean a secret special phone line. You would assume that some family situation has to draw out conflict from this scenario, maybe Mazur’s little girl answering the phone before he can reach it. Nothing of consequence happens with daddy’s special red light phone. The family, absent anything important to do but wait at home, becomes a drag on the narrative and doesn’t even fulfill what you would assume would be its primary service: contrast. In the world of The Infiltrator, sex, money, and drugs are rampant, but our protagonist is unaffected. He remains the same character from the beginning of the story to the end. We don’t really learn more about him other than he is skilled at going undercover. We don’t see any particular toll on him psychologically. We don’t feel the threat of what he’s going through because the movie doesn’t pretend it matters enough.
Going undercover with the Medellin Cartel should provide endless suspense scenarios. This movie should be rife with conflict, and yet it consistently finds deflating, coincidental outs to save its characters. As a good screenwriting rue of thumb, it’s acceptable to use coincidence to put your character into greater danger. It’s not a smart idea to use coincidence to save your character from danger. Example: in Donnie Brasco, a man approaches Johnny Depp’s character and clearly refers to him by his agency name, implying working together with the FBI. That’s a good use of coincidence. With The Infiltrator, Mazur’s secret recording in his briefcase is discovered by a mid-level cartel operative, for once it feels like Mazur is vulnerable. Then the movie quickly dispatches with this guy for a rash explanation and so he takes his secret to his grave. There’s another moment where Emir’s informant is about to squeal to some very bad people, with Emir in the room sweating bullets, and he too is wiped out before sharing his privileged information. The movie is filled with these frustrating solutions just when it seems like tensions is developed. The entire appeal of the undercover mob movie is the twists and turns to hide the real identity and make it out alive. I’m genuinely dumbfounded how much of this movie just skates by with little regard to drawing out effective tension.
I think I can crystallize just how poorly The Infiltrator handles its many threads of conflict with one great example. Kathy and Robert Mazur are fake getting married according o their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his fitting size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she? The film seems to think there is a simmering sexual tension between Kathy and Robert Mazur, but it never materializes. I guess we’re just supposed to assume a sexual tension. This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.
The last third of the movie is built around the relationship that Mazur and Kathy form with Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With an actor of Bratt’s stature, you’d be lead to assume his character will have a significant amount of screen time; however, The Infiltrator also boasts blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs, so maybe not. Bratt’s character is a family man and we’re treated to several scenes with him and his wife. It’s meant to engender sympathy so that when the end comes around we can feel some conflicted emotions. Except this is another area where the screenplay cannot live up to its aims. At no point did I feel sympathy for this mobster. He’s a “family man” and we even see him with his daughter… in one scene who asks to sleep over at a friend’s. Robert preaches about the importance of trust and family in that typical way that all thinly veiled mobsters do in movies, and he even cooks, which is another personality trait I’m sure we’ve never seen in a film about mobsters. The entire last act is predicated on our undercover duo feeling guilt over setting up Robert and his family in an eventual sting, and this guilt feels entirely manufactured.
Cranston (Trumbo) is the real draw here and it’s easy enough to see how alluring the undercover gig is for an actor of immense talents. In the opening scene we get a sense of Mazur on the job, digging deep into a seedy drug dealer lounging in a bowling alley and making passes at the waitresses. It’s a meaty introduction that whets your appetites for the different personalities that Cranston will have to draw from on his next assignment. Cranston is routinely entertaining to watch but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at what the film was asking him to do and what I fully know he’s capable of delivering. It’s like hiring a world famous chef and asking him to fix your plumbing. The other actors don’t distinguish themselves in their fleeting scenes except for Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) and Joseph Gilgun (TV’s Preacher) as a convict that Mazur likes to have pose as his driver/muscle. In the case of both actors, you wish that more had been made with their dynamic to the mission.
The Infiltrator is based on a true story and I assume that what I see on screen closely echoes Mazur’s real exploits and predicaments, but somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost track on what made this story tick. The psychological aspects are barely touched upon, the family conflicts are given careless lip service, the suspense sequences are clipped, under developed, and often solved by convenient coincidence, and the characters are too shallow to grow out from their stock roles. I know these are real human beings for the most part but they don’t feel anything more than genre archetypes. The Infiltrator does enough at a serviceable level of entertainment that it might pass some viewers’ lower threshold to fill an empty two-hour window. With all of its ready-made suspense possibilities and internal and external conflicts, this real-life story should be far more compelling than the one we’re given, which settles too often. It’s a genre movie masquerading as a character study except it’s blown its cover.
Nate’s Grade: C
Quentin Tarantino has always been an artist that thumbs his nose at convention. Just as critics accused his last film, Death Proof, as wallowing in exploitation muck, here comes Inglourious Basterds, very loosely based on the correctly spelled 1978 Italian movie. War movies seem like a natural fit for the QT mold with their staunch violence, tough guy bravado, and vengeance-filled storylines. Tarantino has been working on the script for this film for over ten years, taking a break to produce the Kill Bill features. The finished product is a bloody alternative history wish-fulfillment fantasy with little conscience. This isn’t any sentimental, well-meaning, reflective war movie. This is war Tarantino-style and a celebration of war movies in general. Cinema becomes the weapon we win the war with.
In 1944, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is given a unique mission. He is to assemble and lead a crew of Jewish-American soldiers for one purpose — to kill Nazis. They will be dropped into German-occupied France and will use guerilla tactics to dismember Nazis and strike fear into the higher ranks. Aldo personally assigns each soldier with the task of collecting 100 Nazi scalps. “And I want my scalps,” he commands. The “basterds,” as they’re called, face steep opposition. S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has earned the nickname “Jew hunter” for his terrifying precision at sniffing out Jews hiding along the French countryside. In the film?s terrific opening sequence, he systematically interrogates a French farmer into giving up the Jews he is hiding. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish teenager who manages to miraculously escape this bloodbath.
Years later, she owns and operates a movie theater in Paris. The German high command wants to screen their newest propaganda masterpiece, Nation’s Pride about the exploits of sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), in Shoshanna’s theater. Finally she can plot her vengeance, except that Landa will be providing security for the special screening. Meanwhile, Aldo and the basterds scheme to meet up with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is secretly working with the British as a spy for Operation Kino. The top-secret mission involves attending the movie premier at Shoshanna’s theater and then killing all the high-ranking brass in attendance, thus ending the war.
Those looking for a rip-roaring good time of watching Pitt prance through the countryside dispatching evil Nazis will be disappointed to learn that Inglourious Basterds is, after all, a Tarantino movie. That means there is talking. Lots of talking, but it’s great, glourious talking with deep undercurrents of menace. The movie boils down to about six set pieces and most of that time involves long, drawn out conversations where the tension percolates underneath the surface. The characters play a cat-and-mouse game of deception, and the conversation transforms into a slow fuse waiting to go off. The characters engage in an “I know, and you know I know” bout of play acting, going about their business as if all is calm, when each is waiting for the next move. Tarantino turns dialogue scenes into slow-burning combat, and eventually those lit fuses do finally go off and the scene will erupt in a great splash of violence. Then we are left to assess the situation and collect our bearings, much like the characters if they are fortunate enough to be alive. This is a talky war movie, and Tarantino does fall in love with his dialogue rhythms and allow his characters to overindulge and circle the same plot points more than is needed, like the sequence with von Hammersmark in the bar, but the naysayers looking for an action romp that complain nothing goes on are missing the point. A tremendous amount is going on, you just have to look beneath the surface, lie in wait, and luxuriate in the simmering tension that Tarantino plays like a pro.
Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film that allows him to blend and deconstruct genres, and Inglourious Basterds feels like an homage not to World War II but war movies in general, with a dash of spaghetti westerns. When the French farmer watches Landa drive up to his home, linked with the great Enrico Morricone’s score, you definitely feel like you’re in a western transported into mid-twentieth century Europe. The conversations feel like high-noon showdowns. Tarantino’s direction feels less stylized and idiosyncratic this time. He still plays around with time and back-story, even recruiting Samuel L. Jackson to be a God-like narrator, but Ingloruious Basterds is mostly a literal and linear pop deconstruction of war movies. When Tarantino deviates sharply from the known historical timeline, it feels within reason given the cracked mirror world he?s created. Tarantino can turn World War II into a campy Warner Brothers cartoon, replete with goofy over-the-top caricatures of Hitler and Goebbles. He can also takes digressions and hard right turns with his story, allowing characters to chew over the finer intricacies of German silent cinema. It’s bloody, messy, but boy is it entertaining as hell.
Any conversation over Inglourious Basterds is inevitably going to gravitate to its fascinating central villain, Hans Landa. German actor Waltz plays the infamous “Jew Hunter” and he is astounding to watch; he enlivens every moment onscreen and won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Landa is an extremely intelligent and polite inquisitor. He comes across almost like a diabolical S.S. version of Colombo: he’s three steps ahead, feigns ignorance, circles his prey, and finally strikes after mentally tearing down the suspect. Waltz is practically giddy in some sequences, enthusiastic for such sick endeavors. He likes to screw with people and make them nervous. And yet, thanks to the wily brilliance and magnetism of Waltz, you develop a perverse appreciation for the man. Despite the horrors he is responsible for, you may actually find yourself liking Landa. He has moments of great cunning, like his deliberate reasons for switching to English with the French farmer or his off-the-cuff destruction of von Hammersmark’s alibi. When he suddenly and fluently launches into his fourth language, it is one of the film’s finest “oh crap” moments. This is a truly memorable character that dominates every scene, and Waltz gives an astounding star-making performance destined to be remembered when it comes time to draw Oscar nominees.
The rest of the actors do well but no one approaches the planet that Waltz resides on. Pitt seems to knowingly be shooting for parody with his performance. His accent is twangy and coats every word in a honeyed glaze; you almost expect him to wink at the camera after each line. He’s still amusing to behold in the rather few instances that Aldo graces the movie. Laurent (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Kruger (National Treasure) both have intriguing albeit underwritten roles, and both actresses give the best performances in the film after Waltz. Eli Roth (writer/director of Cabin Fever, one of my favorite movie indulgences) looks the part as the commanding “Bear Jew” with his lean physique and Louisville slugger, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing with his accent. Is he supposed to be from New York or Boston? In war movies, there was usually a colorful collection of characters but Inglourious Basterds doesn’t really do much to accentuate its second tier players. The only basterd that leaves an impression is Til Schweiger (Driven, Far Cry), all humorless resolve and flinty stares. And what happened to the basterds in the final act? Where did everybody go? Yes, that really is Mike Myers doing one of his Austin Powers-esque British impressions.
What is truly surprising is that Basterds unflinchingly looks at all the ugly aspects of war. The movie doesn’t neatly categorize the villains and the heroes. Zoller is a German sniper that killed 300 Allied troops and yet he is portrayed as grounded and romantic, a film lover able to chip away at Shoshanna?s steely reserve. To the basterds, they refuse to see past the uniform and armband; there is no difference between a Nazi and a German soldier. They will mutilate both on principal. Tarantino also gives time to examining the collateral damage of war, watching innocents gunned down in the name of duty. Shoshanna’s plot for vengeance involves the horrific deaths of scads of people whose only sin may have been being German in Paris. Operation Kino is described by Landa as a “terrorist plot” and isn’t it, really? But then Aldo disputes that a “Nazi ain’t got no humanity” and that collaborators and bystanders are just as culpable. Aldo and his basterds march through France committing what could sensibly be described as war crimes, and these are the good guys! Even with all the camp and stylized violence, there may be moments where you want to cringe and ask yourself, “Am I supposed to be enjoying this??
There are those that bemoan that Tarantino is wasting away his remarkable talents on such low-rent enterprises. He is too caught up in genre filmmaking, they claim. He needs to go back to his earlier audacious works, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, films of startling intelligence and playfulness. He needs to stop making collages of movies and go back to making real movies, they cry. Ingloruious Basterds will not please these critics. This is a verbose deconstruction of war movies that runs over 150 minutes and mostly involves characters seated and chatting. It will clearly not be for everyone, especially those sold into thinking Basterds was going to be a more graphic version of The Dirty Dozen. This movie is more Cinema Paradiso than The Dirty Dozen. If Tarantino wants to keep making high-gloss genre goofs, that’s fine with me as long as the end results are as creative and entertaining as this movie. Who else is going to make a World War II fantasy with excellent use of David Bowie’s song “Cat People”? No one makes movies like Tarantino. I rest my case.
Nate’s Grade: A